A peculiar psychological thriller, The Truth about Emanuel is both stylish and silly in equal measure. The title character (Kaya Scodelario) is a 17-year-old who speaks her mind. At dinner, Emanuel bluntly tells her stepmother Janice (Frances O’Connor) that she has same-sex dreams about her. At her job in a pharmacy, she will encourage her co-worker Arthur (Jimmi Simpson) to try out the penis pump he is shelving.
But Emanuel is silenced—and her curiosity is aroused—by the arrival of Linda (Jessica Biel), a young single mother who moves in next door. Emanuel agrees—against her nature—to babysit Linda’s infant daughter Chloe. Her interest could stem from the fact that Linda resembles the teenager’s mother, who died in childbirth. When Emanuel meets Chloe, she discovers a secret about Linda that she chooses to keep and protect as if it were her own.
If audiences go along with what Emanuel discovers, writer/director Francesca Gregorini’s film will create a hypnotic hold. However, many viewers might suspect what is up given various clues, and giggle at the “truth” when it is revealed. It does not help that the actors play their parts so earnestly that The Truth about Emanuel descends at times into camp. While Scodelario gives a strong performance, Biel seems badly miscast.
This is a shame because the point of the film—the root of each woman’s trauma—is very valid and worth investigation. However, Grigorini’s approach is less a focus on the psychology of the women and more on the bond between them. When Linda offers Emanuel a blouse, it is a maternal exchange that she cannot have with her real mother, and—given her distaste for her father’s new wife—does not have with her stepmother. Such engaging moments are telling, and the film could have used more of them to explore the connection between Linda and Emanuel.
Instead Gregorini introduces magical realist moments to create a dreamlike atmosphere but this emphasis only half succeeds. There is a fabulous sequence of Emanuel and Chloe underwater, but it is foreshadowed by heavy-handed symbolic images of water throughout the film. The emotional component of these episodes, while freighted with meaning, ultimately fails to register.
The same holds true of the film’s lack of real dramatic tension. When Chloe goes missing temporarily, or when someone confronts the two women with the reality of their shared secret, the impact is minimal and underwhelming. The Truth about Emanuel is a sedate thriller despite the important issues Gregorini wants to convey.
The Truth about Emanuel opens in wide release today.